Today we are talking briefly with Mark Hughey, an entrepreneur and small business owner from Memphis TN now living in Conway Arkansas. Mark has been involved in several diferent businesses in and around Memphis TN and central Arkansas. He is the founder and owner of Level 7 Chemical company, a chemical trading company in Conway Arkansas, offering all kinds of chemicals for water treatment and commercial uses, as well as food ingredients, and supplies for industry and business. Mark and his wife also own and operate a small real estate company, Hughey properties, renting out homes in vacation spots in and around lakes and other destinations in the Ozarks and in Orange Beach Alabama.
1- First, let’s find out a few details. Tell us about your early life
MH: I grew up in Memphis TN. My mother always worked outside the home usually has a secretery or in admin type jobs. She worked at Sharp manufacturing and at the Donruss bublle gum plant. My father worked for Illinois Central Gulf Railroad and always had second jobs doing landscaping and building retaining walls out of cross ties. They were both resourceful people and I learned a lot from them about life. I attended Overton High School for the performing arts, and then went on to college at Memphis State University, now University of Memphis. All through school and college I worked. My first paying job, other than being recruited to help build cross tie walls, was at Market Basket just down the street from our home in the Parkway Village” neighborhood.
My wife Anne and I met in college at Memphis State, now Univiersity of Memphis. We have been married for over 30 years, and have 3 wonderful sons, who all serve in the military. Anne and I worked at FEDEX in college. We also had started a small landscaping and grass cutting business, Scenic Landscaping, together. We got started cutting grass and maintaining landscaping at several commercial businesses and apartments around town. Later we sold the landscape business, and I started selling real estate for a while for Crye Leike in Midtown Memphis. I had been in the Tennessee Air National Guard for several years after high school, before we were married, and then the first 5 years of our married life. Anne, in addition to rasing our children also made it possible for me to serve in the Guard, and also take care of us as we started other businesses and while I worked for Harcros and Brenntag.
When I was selling real estate interest rates were much higher than they are now, and it was a totally different world, with houses on sale for up to 6 or 7 months. or just not selling at all because it was much tougher to qualify. During that time, to make ends meet, I had gotten out of the Air National Guard and got a job selling cleaning chemicals and water treatment chemicals for Certified Labs. It was 100% commission, and we used our own vehicles. I wore the car out traveling all over Memphis, Shelby County, and other nearby places where there were either manufacturers or other buyers of water treatment chemicals or cleaning products. After about 9 months in, I , and my car had had enough and I started looking for a higher paying job with a regular pay check and hopefully a company car. Thankfully, I was able to get a job
with a family owned solvent and chemical company, Cone Solvents out of Nashville TN. I went to work in their Memphis branch out on President’s Island , a large industrial park on the Mississippi River. I had a good year there and learned a lot. The main think I fugured out was that I had found my career. I really enjoyed selling raw material chemicals and solvents to end users. I just had not quite foudn my home yet.
A year to the day after I started at Cone, I went over to a competitor with a much larger product line, Harcros Chemical, a larger regional chemical distributor hired me. I moved to Arkansas with Harcros Chemical then later, to Atlanta. We thankfully ended back in Conway Arkansas after a few years. The economy had started to turn downward and I ended up moving to Brenntag, another great company, covering the same territory as Harcros.
2- Who influenced you to start your own businesses?
MH: I had a lot of influences in my early life as far as starting businesses. A few of my early influences were my father, a few uncles from both sides of my family, and also people I worked for in Memphis. I was mentored for a while by an executive in Memphis that helped run a local SCORE – Service Corps of Retired Executives group in Memphis. I can not recall his name or the name of his company he had owned, but he was an influence on me. Even now I can recall advice he gave me as we talked when I was in his home, or working for him doing landscaping at his place in East Memphis. He cautioned me early on to make sure a business was properly capitalized, and was really big on establishing processes early on to make a business succesful. My wife was also a great part of our businesses. She ran Chemistry Connection most of the time, and all of the time after I built that first website saveoncitric dot com.
3- Do you remember when you first decided to step out on your own and start a business?
MH: I remember working for myself very early in life. Nothing big. Even as a kid, I would walk around our neighborhood and find odd jobs to do. I would do things I guess most kids would do, rake leaves, cut yards. I also remember finding a big pile of carpet samples from a carpet store, and walking door to door, and selling them as welcome mats. Sometimes you have to get creative. Whatever works. I was probably 10 or 11 at the time. Later on, after marriage, when I was running my landscaping company, Scenic Landscape, I recall having being short a few people on a truck one day and having to cut a particular yard in East Memphis that was on an old city owned golf course surrounded by older, beautiful homes. The home was owned by Mr. Bruce, a man that was the president of a large manufacturing plant in Memphis. We had spoken a few times about business and he had impressed me in a lot of ways, and my wife and I loved his house. (She had been over to that same neighborhood many times and to that house in particular a few times when we were short on help). It was a brutally hot and humid day in Memphis and had rained a few days earlier, and the lawn was very hard to cut. I remember looking at that house and thinking I wanted to own a home like that one day, and wondering how that would ever happen cutting yards in E Memphis. The next week I put the landscape business up for sale, and started a class to get my real estate license. Looking back, I really wish I had learned to manage a business more efficiently and effectively, and known how to run a business and to just add a second source of revenue, like selling real estate, to my landscape company. Those would have been very complimentary together. Landscaping would have done really well along with real estate sales. Our landscape business had started producing some decent cash flow, but as they say, hindsight is 20-20.
4- Tell us about recent business experiences.
MH: Over the next nearly 20 years, after leaving Memphis, I worked for Harcros Chemical, first in sales, covering Arkansas, then later as a manager in Atlanta for a short time. We were only in Atlanta for about a year. The I went back in to sales and for a short period of time I worked in Alabama. I had received a few job offers from competitors of Harcros during that period but just did not have peace about leaving. Even though we (Harcros management) had some “differences of opinion” while I was in Atlanta which led me to moving on from being a manager with Harcros. However, I really liked the overall philosophy of the company, which was entrepreneurial for the most part. so Anne and I decided to stay with them but decided to return to Arkansas. Then the economy really tanked, and I ended up being let go in a down size. I immediately moved over to Brenntag, the largest chemical distributor in the world. I recall that I was let go from Harcros on a Wednesday afternoon, and had my first interview with Carl, the manager of Brenntag in Memphis that next Monday or Tuesday. A few weeks later I started working there in their Memphis branch, just around the corner from Harcros and Cone Solvents, out on Presidents Island, that next week. I was covering some larger accounts in Memphis, and also covering Arkansas for them so thankfully there was no moving involved and we stayed in Conway.
A few years earlier, during my last two or three years with Harcros, I had decided to start selling surplus chemicals and equipment on the side, while at Harcros. This was all in line with I had seen other people doing there both in the company and in the industry as a whole. David Goode, an owner at Harcros, and also Robert Hogan another owner, and the manager in Little Rock had often told me about many side deals they had and it was time, I decided, to follow in their footsteps. They were both always mentors to me, and taught me a lot about being an entrepreneur while working at Harcros. The only way to be very succesful at Harcros, during that era, was really to operate your territory just like it was your own business. so my new company, Chemistry Connection, quickly took off since I had been learning exaclty what to do just by managing my territory very agressively and growing it 4 x in just my first 4 years there, and then larger and larger growth every year. What was even more fun, and intersting, is that many of my friends that were also suppliers helped me along the way. I found out as I grew both my business terrories for Harcros and Brenntag later, that bulding my own “book of business” on the side through Chemistry Connection was all very normal in the industry I had decided to build my career in. I had a growing family and we could use the extra money.